Here Without Me
Synopsis: This Iranian adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie portrays the clash between the dreams and the harsh reality of a struggling single-parent family in contemporary Tehran.
Tennesee Williams, Tehran style.
Just how the romantic intrigue works out is one of the film’s great pleasures, but Tavakoli toys with our sympathies (and desires) right into the last moments.
IRANIAN FILM FESTIVAL: In 1944 The Glass Menagerie appeared on Broadway. Pungent and claustrophobic, its characters seemed driven to madness by their desperate need to find some solace within a lonely world of limited options. The plot was about an aging Southern Belle, who is trying to raise her two grown up kids in a wearied atmosphere of near poverty and soured dreams. Long before, her husband abandoned them all. Her only son works to support them. He escapes to the movies and dreams of better things. Her only daughter, painfully shy, is a shut-in, her collection of glass ornaments a refuge from her longing. The play was a hit for Tennessee Williams, his first.
Here Without Me is a re-think of Williams’ great play by Iranian filmmaker Bahram Tavakoli. Set in modern Tehran, it depicts a world of factories and cramped living and scraps of pleasures. Much of it doggedly sticks to Williams’ plotline, but the ringing melancholy of the American stage piece (and its ‘Southern-ness’) is replaced by a mood of feverish struggle, which is less to do with a kind of craziness than a surging lust to survive tough times. There’s little that’s ‘American’ about it.
Tavakoli’s direction is smart and sharp and it’s full of allusions to Williams’ tradition without it all becoming academic and ‘stagey’. Or to put it another way, it’s got a life and energy of its own, so familiarity with the play, or Williams’ obsessions and interest, are beside the point here.
Talky and dense, it moves along with the same kind of heartbreaking urgency of say a Douglas Sirk ‘50s melodrama. The acting has a lived-in quality that’s very moving; you understand each of the characters and feel their inner struggles in a cross word, a glance, an awkward silence. The terrible need for release from private pain hangs over the cast here like some toxic aura.
The action centres on the family of single mother Farideh (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya). Energetic, but fearsomely defiant, loving and bullying in equal measure, she works two jobs, and fears that a lack of any real money will ultimately strangle the lives of her two kids and with it her own sense of purpose and love; Yalda (Negar Javaherian), her daughter is very beautiful, but lacks any social confidence, partly because of a pronounced limp, but also because she fears that romantic love is just not possible for her…
Then there is Eshan (Saber Abar), Farideh’s son. He writes poetry. He adores the movies. He works in the kind of bleak, no-joy warehouse gig that most would kindly describe as ‘soul-destroying’. But when he’s watching say Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (dubbed into Farsi) his face, crippled with the weight of so much reluctant hope, takes on a lightness. Eshan sees on screen he can’t get from life; it liberates him, gives him answers and a thing to live for. His agony is that he can’t translate that into action so he dreams of an ultimate escape: a ticket out of Tehran.
Meanwhile Farideh pressures both kids…to be more….to want more from themselves and life. Tavakoli takes Williams’ Gentlemen Caller and turns him into Reza (Parsa Piroozfar), Eshan’s best mate.
As handsome and upbeat as Eshan is hangdog and habitually glum, Farideh, impressed with his credentials (and the financial security he can offer) sets Reza up as a romantic prospect for the emotionally ill-equipped Yalda.
One of the best things about the film is the way Tavakoli takes chances with the material. For instance the ‘courting’ of Yalda has Reza uncertain of his exact role in Farideh’s little family drama – he doesn’t know he’s being set up by Yalda’s Mum to play suitor! It could have made for a heavy scene. But Tavakoli gives it a lightness that embraces a whirl of feelings. It’s a confusion of misunderstanding, embarrassment and absurdity; and it emerges as funnily, cringingly, sad. Just how the romantic intrigue works out is one of the film’s great pleasures, but Tavakoli toys with our sympathies (and desires) right into the last moments. He seems to ask, by the films ambiguous final moments,’is there ever such a thing as happy ending?’
But that teasing irony doesn’t scold what’s best about the film; Here Without Me has a sane and real sense of emotional poverty and the awful pain that it can cause. There’s no scorn for these characters and their hopes. They will survive. They might grow. At least it left me feeling that.
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